FULLERTON, Calif. – For the fourth consecutive year Cal State Fullerton men's soccer advanced to the Big West Conference Tournament finals following its 2-1 victory over UC Riverside Saturday night at Titan Stadium.
"Pretty incredible. It's so hard to do this, mentally, physically.... To have the right chemistry and to have the right guys. After losing 14 guys from last year, it's an incredible feat. We didn't celebrate too much, because our expectation is to be there," said Head Coach George Kuntz. "Our journey is to go through the next wall. Already the wheels are turning with me. We don't dwell on the last, we work on the next."
Kuntz has led his teams, either UC Irvine and now Fullerton, to eight of the 10 Big West Tournament finals.
The two teams battled each other all night, ending the game nearly equal in statistical categories. The Titans fired off nine shots compared to UC Riverside's eight while Fullerton earned four corners to the Highlanders two.
Fullerton was lead by its senior leader and captain, Nicolo D'Amato, who scored the game-winning goal in the 69th minute on free kick from just outside the 18-yard box to lead the Titans the 2-1 win.
"I knew this wasn't going to be my last night. I gave it everything. Coach called it this week, he said I would score on a free kick tonight," D'Amato said. "It wasn't the free kick I wanted to score, but a goal is a goal, I'll take it. I'm really excited and humbled to have scored the game-winning goal and to put our team in a good spot for the championship."
D'Amato also assisted on the first goal of the night on a spectacular pass from midfield to Samuel Goni who then worked his magic getting around to defenders to score the goal. The goal was Goni's team-leading ninth of the season.
The Highlanders answered the Titans in the 58th minute on a penalty kick from Daniel Aguirre. Aguirre was inside the six-yard box when he was fouled, leading the to penalty kick which he was able to put away, shooting right as goalkeeper Paul-Andre Guerin dove the opposite way.
Along with his five points on the offensive end, D'Amato kept the team composed and the defense suffocating throughout the 90 minutes, even while being a man short for a majority of the second half.
Just over 10 minutes later, in the 69th minute, Fullerton's defensive anchor, Corentin Ohlmann, was given a red card after receiving his second yellow card of the game. Ohlmann is the Titans top defender as well as co-captain of the team along with D'Amato. Needless to say Fullerton's defense may have improved after losing one of its top players due to the rest of the team realizing the effort needed to pick up the slack for Ohlmann.
Guerin was big in net once again for the Titans, recording three saves on the night on UC Riverside's four shots on goal. The only shot on goal Guerin did not save was the penalty kick. Guerin is now 7-6-2 when starting in goal.
Fullerton now has a week off before heading to UC Davis for the Big West Conference Tournament finals. The two No. 1 seeds in the tournament will meet Saturday Nov. 11 at 12 p.m. PT at Aggie Stadium.
Head Coach George Kuntz
(On tonight's strategy) "We wanted to attack this team. They make it difficult. The last six, seven games, they've made it very difficult for opponents. I told them it would be a very close game. I was hoping it would open up a little bit, the plan was to attack. Credit to Riverside, they had a good game plan, they slowed us down a bit. Second half, we owned it for awhile. Even when a man down we did a pretty good job possessing the ball."
(On not having Ohlmann next week) "We've had to juggle that all fall, it's been a weekly thing. We've already discussed it before the game. There's always what-ifs. We do have a plan, we do have guys. We'll see how we come back and we'll organize. But tonight we're just going to enjoy it.
(On facing Davis in championship) "Our guys, we all know that every team is quality in the conference. That's a given, every team has a chance. Davis has had a great season. They came here and it was an important game, it was a good game. Both teams learned from that game. It's just going to be a great college soccer game. Great environment. Both teams are going to work hard to prepare for that. Everybody's going to have to make adjustments. Let's put it all on the table and see how it goes."
(On heading to championship) "Very excited to secure the spot, we've been training for this all year. Coach said just keep plugging away, in the end, it worked out for us with all the hard work we've been doing."
(On week off) "This week was the best week of practice we've had all season. Everyone was really motivated, everyone was really focused every practice. We played at a high level. With a week off, we rested out legs, I think everyone needed that."
(On Riverside) "The energy today compared to when we played there, was way higher, you could tell we wanted the game from the beginning. The game we played at home, I had a lot of chances. We're a family, we work for each other and that's what we did."
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